‘Conceptualisation and History of the Guianas’ By Tota C. Mangar

Stabroek News
July 31, 2003

Related Links: Articles on history
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Origin & Meaning
The ‘Guianas’ is the name or term that applies collectively to that vast area that stretches “between the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers in northern South America. It was this very region that was identified as the ‘Wild Coast’ during the heyday of European exploration, settlement and colonization.

Before the advent of the Europeans the area was populated by several of the migratory Amerindian tribes who made their appearance through Central America. It is therefore not surprising that the indigenous people are associated with the origin and meaning of the name ‘Guianas’. As a matter of fact, a number of interpretations are advanced, all of which merit varying degrees of consideration.

The most widely accepted view is that the term itself has its roots in the Arawakan word ‘ina’ or ‘wina’ meaning water and Guiana meaning ‘land of many waters’ or implying ‘flooded country’, which undoubtedly it was due to its coastal low land. A Brazilian historian, Francisco the Vernhagen gave another explanation as to the meaning of the term ‘Guianas’. According to him the Tupi or Guarani tribe migrated gradually from the Southern forests, taking the name Guiana which means ‘illustrious people’. Reverend James Williams writing in 1923 gave yet another explanation. He claimed that the name ‘Guianas’ is derived from ‘Kuwai’ meaning ‘people by the ite palm trees’ but he offers little supportive evidence.

Another interpretation is advanced by the late Professor Leslie Cummings, distinguished geographer and prolific author. He believes that the earliest Iberian explorers got the name, which became ‘Guianas’ from the Warraus who occupied the area between the Pomeroon and the Amacura delta. In the face of scant and incomplete records and from the examination of Spanish maps and field studies, it was his view that when asked by the Spaniards about the name of the country the Warraus replied ‘Wai-ana meaning ‘without a name’, that is there is no name to the area. This was probably interpreted as the name and the Spaniards, recorded it as ‘Guay-ana’ which in time became ‘Guiana’ and was subsequently adopted for the whole area between the Orinoco and the Amazon, and was incorporated in the maps and accounts of the rival European nations.

The paucity of historical documents, including accounts of exploratory voyages and maps, along with the state of disintegration of those documents that are available, are among factors associated with the difficulty at arriving at the true origin and meaning of the term ‘Guianas’. With no conclusiveness on the issue, one has to support Cummings when he writes “more work into historical geography and ethnography of the coastal tribes could throw more light on the origin and meaning of the word”.

The ‘Guianas’ comprise an area of approximately half a million square miles and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the north, Orinoco and Rio Negro in the west and the Amazon in the south and southeast. It extends for over 1,000 miles east to west and about 500 miles north to south and is divided politically into part of Venezuela (Spanish Guiana), part of Brazil (Portuguese Guiana); the entire Guyana (formerly British Guiana); Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana, an overseas department of France.

In a more or less generalized way the Guianas could be likened to a large island since the two boundary rivers are to some extent connected in the far interior by means of the Rio Negro and its branches with the Orinoco.

The scenery of the region is one of “remarkable picturesque beauty” with its numerous rivers and creeks, marshes and lagoons, magnificent waterfalls, wonderful mountains, extensive and virtually impenetrable forests and a relatively flat and low-lying coastal plain often below sea level and fringed with an abundance of courida and mangrove vegetation on its shore. Where not empoldered, the coastland, for the most part is subjected to an overflow of both sea and backland water.


The known history of the ‘Guianas’ dates back to within a decade of the discovery of the New World. As far as European exploratory voyages are concerned the Guianas Coast was originally discovered by Christopher Columbus during his third Atlantic voyage in 1498. Subsequent visits were made to the area by other early explorers including Alonzo de Ojeda and Juan de La Gosa in 1499, Vincent Juan Pinzon in 1500 and Amerigo Vespucci at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In spite of these early visits it was almost a full century afterwards that Europeans began to show an increasing interest in the region. Spanish neglect of the Guianas in this initial period could be partially attributed to their emphasis on consolidation in the Greater Antilles, Mexico and Central America and the Empire of Peru and surrounding areas which were perceived as more valuable at the time.

In 1593 the Spanish Governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berreo, sent the first detailed description of the Guiana region to Spain and in the very year Domingo de Vera took possession of it in the name of the Spanish monarch, Phillip II. Even so the area was not colonized by the Spaniards and according to historian Hiss, their treatment of the natives “provoked fierce resistance”. The myth of El Dorado, a province of “innumerable gold, silver and emeralds somewhere along the Orinoco or in the uplands of the Guianas” attracted gold thirsty Europeans including the famous Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh. So absorbed was he in the thoughts of El Dorado that Raleigh predicted “he who became the master of ‘Guiana’ would possess more gold and would rule more people than the King of Spain or the Emperor of Turkey. His publication, The Discoverre of Guiana (1595) in which he contended that Guiana had more gold than Peru, caused a sensation in Europe and served to intensify that futile search during which many adventurers lost their lives.

During the early seventeenth century, as part of the challenge of Spain’s New World monopoly, the Dutch, English and French made attempts to trade and even settle in the Guiana territory.

This development led to several clashes with the Spaniards along the coast and in the Orinoco region. With very little or no effective occupation of the area on the part of Spain, it was inevitable that her European rivals were the ones to successfully encroach and open the Guianas to commerce. Trading posts or depots and small settlements were established by these non-Hispanic nations.

The Dutch took the lead in the establishment of trading posts in the Essequibo, Pomeroon and Berbice to facilitate the bartering of indigenous products, in particular annatto, dyewoods and tobacco for European items such as axes, knives, cloth, scissors and mirrors. At the same time the French and English began to make attempts at establishing permanent settlements in the areas of Cayenne and Oyapoc respectively. In the initial period these efforts proved futile due mainly to the unfriendliness of the native Indians, tropical diseases and the frequent shortages of basic supplies. As the years progressed the Guianas gradually became the scene of intense international rivalry as each European nation attempted to consolidate its position in portions of the Guiana territory.

It is little wonder that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were characterized by trading ventures, settlement, wars, plunders, shifting allegiances, seizures and restorations and the establishment of plantations. The latter came about when European settlers began to concentrate on the production of crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and sugar cane on a commercial scale.

This development was particularly true of Guyana and Suriname. It led to large-scale importation of African labour and a stratified society of master and slaves. Such a situation persisted for a long time and the grave injustices and cruelties associated with the slavery system brought about unique forms of resistance which instilled fear in the plantocracy.

Following Emancipation in the nineteenth century, the Guianas become more ethnically diversified with the introduction of indentured immigrants through various immigration schemes. From then on agriculture remained the backbone of the economy especially in Guyana and Suriname. By the mid 1850’s French Guiana experienced a brief interlude of gold boom. Even so it remained economically depressed and become more prominent as a penal settlement in the nineteenth century.

A number of developments emerged in the Guianas in the twentieth century. Among them was a decline of the plantocracy, the rise of sizeable middle and professional classes, economic diversification, a working class, a working class organization, nationalism and political consciousness. To this end Guyana and Suriname achieved political independence after hundreds of years of European domination.

In the case of French Guiana, “the Cinderella of the French Colonial Empire” - this part of the Guianas remains unique as an “overseas department of France”.

Indeed, exploration and colonization of the Guianas have led to a strong European and other cultural influences on its peoples and on societies which are perhaps more complex than in pre-Columbian times. Against the background of a rapidly changing world environment the Guianas face renewed challenges in this twenty-first century of ours.

Site Meter